State court leaders stonewall program to benefit court-related nonprofits

Program blocked to fund non-profits

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Leaders at the Mecklenburg County courthouse say they have hit a brick wall in a years-long effort to create a program to support area non-profits that support the local justice system.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed a law in 2007 that allowed for the creation of a pilot program in which people called for jury duty could opt to donate their daily jury fee to benefit a local court-related nonprofit.

The law authorizing the pilot program was the result of work done by Todd Nuccio, the Trial Court Administrator for the 26th Judicial District, which encompasses Mecklenburg County.

"We spent a lot of time developing the proposal, moving it through the legislature and enacting it as law," Nuccio said in an interview. "We have tried on many occasions now to implement that proposal and have run into a brick wall."

Documents provided by Nuccio in response to a public records request show his most recent attempts to establish a pilot program in Mecklenburg County came nearly a year-and-a-half ago.

Nuccio, along with Senior Resident Superior Judge Bob Bell and Elisa Chinn-Gary, the Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court, submitted a renewed proposal outlining how they would operate such a program.

The proposal called for the creation of one overarching nonprofit that would receive the donated jury fees and distribute the funds to court-related nonprofits as indicated by jurors.

DOCUMENT: Read the proposal to create a jury fee waiver program in Mecklenburg County

A survey conducted in late 2012 and early 2013 found that 55 percent of jurors would choose to donate their fee to one in a list of five court-related charities.

Among the charities that would benefit from the program is Larry King's Clubhouse, a nonprofit daycare housed inside the courthouse that offers free childcare for people who have court appearances.

Gloria Peters, the daycare's executive director, estimates the daycare would receive roughly $6,000 a year if the program were in effect.

That money, Peters said, would go towards buying supplies that children need while they're at the daycare.

"Parents think, 'oh 15-20 minutes in court' and they're here for three or four hours. So we need money for supplies for the children," Peters explained.

One drawer contained diapers of various sizes and wipes. A nearby shelf had dry cereal for snacks.

Peters said her facility averages roughly thirty kids a day; more than 7,000 children a year.

Without the facility, Peters said, parents would have to bring their children into the courtroom, which would add unneeded disruption.

"Talk to any of the judges, talk to any of the bailiffs in the court rooms and they'll tell you how needed this service is," she said. "It removes all the distractions that children cause in the courtrooms, and even if you have a quiet child that's sitting in there, they're still hearing adult matters that they don't need to be hearing and listening to."

But it doesn't look like additional dollars from a would-be pilot program will be flowing to Peters and the daycare any time soon.

Court officials at the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts have sat on the proposal submitted last May without providing any response.

"The part that's frustrating is that we've never been asked to come and sit down and talk through the proposal and say 'how can we make this work?'" Nuccio said. "The last correspondence we sent simply asked yes or no?"

A spokeswoman for the NC AOC refused to explain on-camera why the agency was blocking the pilot program but did send an email with the following statement:

"In 2007 two bills were introduced for Mecklenburg County to run a program that would allow jurors to decline payment for jury service and allow it to be redirected to court-related nonprofits. One version required a judge to inform jurors of the opportunity to donate to these local nonprofits, which may run afoul of the judicial code of conduct. This legislation never made it out of committee."

"Separate legislation later that year authorized the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC) discretion to set up such a program without designating a particular judicial district. NCAOC explored such a pilot in Mecklenburg County, but too many questions arose regarding how to manage and distribute the funds for it to be practical. No other judicial district has made any proposal under this legislation."

"The new proposal submitted seven years later by Mecklenburg County in 2015 attempts to solve this by having a single nonprofit to receive these funds and redistribute them separately. It does not appear from IRS filings of the proposed nonprofit that it would qualify to receive funds under the legislation because it does not provide direct services to the public."

"It does appear that sending waived jury fees to the N.C. Crime Victims Compensation fund would avoid any administrative difficulty. This would also avoid the potential appearance of a conflict of interest that a district might summons more jurors than they require because of the opportunity to raise funds for court-related programs."

Nuccio said he disagreed with the NC AOC's assessment that the nonprofit created to administer the jury fees runs afoul of the statutory language authorizing a pilot program. He also questioned why state court leaders would think such a program would encourage local court officials to summons more jurors.

Gloria Peters, the daycare director, just wishes the NC AOC would be willing to work with local leaders to find a solution.

"It's just frustrating, it's frustrating," Peters said of the years-long roadblock to creating the program.

Copyright 2016 WBTV. All rights reserved.